A rain shower passing to the north of Newcastle, Co. Down. Picture taken from the Mourne Mountains [larger version here].
Earlier this summer, the Irish Times ran a competition to decide the best place in Ireland to live. Actually the readers got to decide – people had to send in a short description of why their nomination was the best place to live. Luckily, not all Cork people read the Irish Times, or there would have been no doubt about the result (many Cork people are probably not aware that there are other places to live in Ireland). Despite the fact that the competition was clearly link-bait, it was still a bit of fun. Obviously, I would have chosen Galway had I entered the competition, but I wasn’t disappointed with the eventual winner – Westport – another beautiful town in the west of Ireland.
However, there is a town could be a great place to at least visit, if not to live. I visited there for the first time in ages on St Patrick’s Weekend earlier this year. The last time I visited Newcastle in Co. Down, it was the roasting hot summer of 1995. A friend and I were taking a week to tour Northern Ireland in the shade of the IRA ceasefire which had been called the previous August. I don’t remember much of the day I spent in Newcastle 17 years ago. There was a fairly tacky carnival set up along the waterfront, I remember being a bit nervous of the number of Loyalist tattoos on display and I remember going for a short hike into the hills behind the town.
Things have changed quite a bit since, on both sides of the border. To get there, I could drive on motorway continuously from Galway to Newry, before taking the coast road out to Newcastle. There was a time when you knew you had crossed the border when the roads suddenly improved (on the northern side) – of course, the army checkpoints were a bit of a giveaway too. Newcastle has been renovated in the intervening years – there is a promenade that would rival Salthill stretching the entire length of the town. Of course, Newcastle possess one other trump card – the Mourne Mountains are literally ‘just out the back’.
The reason I was there in the first place is that 17 members of the Galway Walking club were using Newcastle as a base to go hiking in the Mournes. I’ll talk about the hikes another time, but the whole weekend was great – great weather, great hikes and great hospitality. There was one thing that was noticeable – the tourist industry in Newcastle still has a long way to go. While I was there, I kept thinking that a town with so many natural amenities and in such a great location – relatively close to both Belfast and Dublin for a start – would be choked with visitors if it was located in the Republic. Specifically, Newcastle reminded me of Killarney, or rather an alternative-reality version of Killarney, where tourists still haven’t heard of the place. If there is one town in Ireland that has worked tirelessly to brand itself as a tourist destination, it is Killarney. As it happened , I was there for the St Patrick’s weekend last year, and you could hardly move for visitors from other parts of Ireland, the USA and the rest of Europe. That didn’t happen by accident – Killarney is a nice small town with a wonderful mountain range nearby – but it isn’t the only nice place in Ireland.The people of Killarney work hard to attract tourists, and as a result, there are plenty of nice hotels, good restaurants and great opportunities for hiking in the Reeks [it made it to the shortlist of the Irish Times competition].
If I were a councillor in Newcastle, I’d invite some of my Kerry counterparts up for a visit and I’d try to tap into their experience [be careful, mind, those Kerry fellas are shrewd - don't sign anything]. And who knows, maybe in years to come, Irish Times readers might be voting for Newcastle as a great place to live (or visit), and I’ll be complaining that it’s impossible to get a table at a restaurant, even in the off-season.